Talk About Net Gains

At 17, Gabriela Sabatini is starting to realize her vast potential on and off the court
May 01, 1988

The future of women's tennis is sitting on a stool by the edge of the sea, sipping a soft drink in the shade of a grass shack, thinking about the past. This is not easy. Gabriela Sabatini starts to speak and then stops again. Finally, her lips curl into a moue and she shakes her head, saying nothing. The future of women's tennis has big shoulders, and they rise to a shrug.

Sabatini is known to her friends on the tour as Gaby, but she says, "I don't have any real friends on the tour." Gaby yes, gabby no. She broods and shrugs again, her dark eyes shining. She is not interested in talking about the past. The future of women's tennis is now.

Sabatini knew this was so almost from the moment she left her native Argentina at 13 to train in the U.S. Now, at 17, she may be ready to accept her role. In March she won the Virginia Slims of Florida in Boca Raton, defeating 18-year-old Steffi Graf (2-6, 6-3, 6-1) for the first time in 12 attempts. Two weeks ago at Amelia Island, Fla., she beat Graf again, overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the final set to win 6-3, 4-6, 7-5.

Sabatini, the No. 5 player in the world, and Graf, ranked No. 1, are perfect foils for each other. One is dark, the other fair; one is quiet, the other affable; Sabatini has a wicked backhand, Graf a thunderous forehand. "They've electrified the game," says Ted Tinling, the director of International Liaison (whatever that means) for the Virginia Slims series. "You need positive and negative currents to generate that kind of electricity, and these two are perfect for each other."

Sabatini first had to deal with her past tense before she could move on to the future perfect. She had already established herself as a prodigy at age 14 by defeating Zina Garrison, Pam Shriver and Manuela Maleeva—three of the top 10 players in the world at the time—in a tournament at Hilton Head. A month later she became the youngest semifinalist in the history of the French Open before losing to Chris Evert 6-4, 6-1. But the women's circuit can be a particularly unforgiving place for a teenage girl with a readily apparent weakness: Sabatini, who liked to pound every shot as hard as she could, often began to tire midway through her matches. "About two years ago, everybody said she was going to be a big star," says Helena Sukova of Czechoslovakia. "But then she didn't play so well and dropped in the rankings, so people assumed she was just another young girl who burned out quickly."

The better players eventually began to run her from one side of the court to the other, patiently waiting for her legs to turn to rubber. "Six months ago I would have said she hadn't progressed the way I thought she would," says Shriver. "I had kind of lost respect for her game. There wasn't much thought to it; everything was just bash, bash, bash. But toward the end of last year she was the most improved player on the tour. She seemed to be working harder, was in better condition, and suddenly she had a greater variety of shots."

The reason for this sudden transformation was hardly a mystery. After four years under the guidance of Chilean-born Patricio (Pato) Apey, Sabatini decided she needed a new coach, one who would improve her conditioning. She found him in Angel Gimenez, a 32-year-old former Davis Cup player from Spain whom she met last year at a Slims tournament in San Francisco. Gimenez started her running 45 minutes to an hour a day and increased her practice time on the court.

"Pato brought her to a certain level, but we wanted her to move on," says her father, Osvaldo. Apey had discovered Sabatini when she was a 12-year-old playing a junior tournament in Brazil. He quickly convinced her parents that the best way to develop her potential was for her to leave Buenos Aires and train with him in Key Biscayne, Fla. "She was very talented but was not using her art," Apey says. "I saw her throwing the racket and not behaving herself. She was obviously very frustrated."

Sabatini had completed one year of junior high school when she headed off to Florida to seek her fortune. The move caused some concern among her growing entourage of advisers. Dick Dell, who signed Sabatini to a contract with ProServ shortly after she turned 14, hoped she would continue her schooling in Florida, but he met resistance from her family. "I am for anything that would give her an outlet outside tennis," Dell says. "Instead of being in school every day with girls her own age, she was thrown into an adult world."

Sabatini hasn't taken any correspondence courses or had any tutoring since arriving in the U.S. She spoke no English for nearly three years, and today she admits she still has no close friends. "It was a great sacrifice," says Osvaldo, "but she had a passion for tennis."

Apey sought to control that passion, and to sustain it for as long as possible, by keeping Sabatini's workouts light. But as her progress began to level off, that strategy increasingly became a source of friction within the entourage.

Daniel (Palito) Fidalgo, Sabatini's first coach in Buenos Aires, believes Apey was guilty of coaching malpractice. "Gaby's problem was lack of physical strength, not tennis," Fidalgo says, "and Apey didn't pay enough attention to that aspect of her training." As early as two years ago, other players recognized Sabatini's problem. "She seemed not to have as much direction as she could have had in her workouts," says Shriver. "I think she was ready to take a step up in intensity." Adds Dell, "Gaby was not happy with the level she was at. She was definitely stagnating."

The situation was complicated by the intensity of the personal relationship that had developed between Sabatini and Apey. "Pato was very much a father figure to her," Dell says. After Sabatini and Gimenez worked out together in San Francisco last year, she decided she wanted him to be her coach and asked her father if he would break the news to Apey. There has been speculation ever since that Osvaldo, jealous of Apey and tired of hearing about "father figures," was the one who wanted to remove Apey from the picture. "I don't think anybody can replace a father," Apey says, "but every time one of my players gets successful, always there is a little bit of jealousy from the parents."

In 1986, after 29 years as an executive with General Motors, Osvaldo left to take over the day-to-day management of his daughter's career. He now travels with Gaby and Gimenez. It seems unlikely that Osvaldo's presence will help Sabatini overcome the extreme shyness that has made her a virtual recluse on the tour. "Having a parent around all the time can be a double-edged sword," says Dell. "It will be hard for her to come out of her shell as long as she always has her father or mother to fall back on."

Sabatini armored herself against anyone who tried to get too close by refusing to learn English. "I think she speaks English better now," says Sukova, "but still she doesn't talk." A friend of the family's who has known Sabatini since she was 10 concedes that the real problem may lie elsewhere. "Gaby has tennis elbow in her personality," he says.

A few players have tried to get to know her better, but most have been politely rebuffed. Shriver decided during a tournament in Brighton, England, last year to break the ice by joining the Sabatini entourage for breakfast. Not once, but twice. "I must say, they were awfully quiet breakfasts," she says. "There's certainly an outgoing side of her, but it doesn't come out in the locker room or anywhere around tennis. The first couple of years, people take that in stride, but after a while it gets old. I think this year everybody would like to see her be more a part of the group."

The group probably shouldn't hold its breath. "I don't talk very much with the girls," Sabatini says. "Maybe I prefer the other players to come to me because I am shy."

"That sounds like a pretty arrogant attitude to me," says Evert. "Nobody wants to pass judgment on Gaby, but we've all gone out of our way to be nice to her." Evert says she understands the need to maintain a certain emotional distance from the other players. "I'm that way, too," she says, "but I at least say hello to people."

Well.

Outside the ladies' locker room, Sabatini's silence seems less a problem, even imbuing her with an air of mystery. "The more of a star you are, the more aloof you have to become," says Tinling. "I think that aloofness is part of her charisma. There's a great arrogance about Sabatini, and it all shows in the carriage of her head. She looks almost goddesslike. Taken together, her beauty and her arrogance form a contradiction. And I don't think one should try to solve a contradiction in a beautiful woman. One has simply to accept her as she is."

More than any of the game's other top players, Sabatini can hold a gallery with her brooding good looks. "She'll be walking around the court with her head down," says Shriver, "and suddenly she'll look up and smile, and she has this incredible aura around her." Sabatini says she is comfortable with her looks and the effect they have on people. At many tournaments her practice sessions are haunted by scores of lovesick boys who follow her every move with shining eyes.

It is easy to forget that a woman as glamorous and successful as Sabatini is not yet 18. She was born only one year before a ponytailed Evert reached the semifinals in her first appearance at the U.S. Open. Sabatini is one of the three most popular people in all of Argentina, along with soccer god Diego Maradona and president Raúl Alfonsín. Back home recently for a two-month visit to Villa de Parque, a suburb of Buenos Aires where her family now lives, people came to their windows and cheered as Sabatini went by on her daily run. When she goes out with her family, she is routinely mobbed. "It's like suffocating," says Sabatini's mother, Beatriz, who occasionally accompanies Gaby on the circuit. "You get scared and so you must hide."

Sabatini's emergence as an international tennis star in 1984 came as Argentina was still struggling to recover from the loss of the war in the Falkland Islands, as well as the realization that most of "the disappeared"—those who had vanished during a succession of military juntas—had been murdered. "Suddenly in the middle of all the depression and bad news, when everything seemed to be wrong in Argentina," says Apey, "there comes this little angel who makes only good news. I think that is what made her an idol."

Sabatini has made only a modest fortune from endorsement and marketing contracts, although that could easily become a large fortune over the next several years. "It's as rare to find world-class looks in athletics as it is to find world-class intellect," says Art Kaminsky, a leading sports-marketing agent. "Hollywood develops good-looking women to become stars, but sports doesn't work that way. Gabriela is so good to look at—she has great legs and a striking face—that if she can continue to improve as a tennis player, she can be a long-term hitter in terms of marketability. The only things that might hold her back are the language barrier and how much personality is actually there. If she can put all that together with her looks and talent, she could be the most valuable female athlete in the world."

Sabatini, of course, isn't the first physically attractive female athlete. Golfer Laura Baugh, who has never won a professional tournament, was willing to do enough cheesecake modeling in Japan, where her blonde hair and blue eyes set her apart, to become a big star there. "The difference between Laura Baugh and Chris Evert," says Kaminsky, "is Baugh has made a very nice living because she's good-looking, and Evert has made a huge living because she's a great player and she's nice looking."

When a West German company releases her signature scent next year, Sabatini will become, as far as anyone can determine, the first female athlete in history to have a line of perfume named after her. "If she should win a Grand Slam event in the next two years, I don't know how high is up," says Dell. "She's one of those rare athletes who have the potential to transcend her sport." Even Dell acknowledges, however, that Sabatini's personality is not yet fully formed. "There's a certain growth she still has to go through," he says. "She needs to gain an awareness and a comfortableness with who she is."

Last year Sabatini made the finals of the Virginia Slims Championships at Madison Square Garden and the Italian Open. In both tournaments she defeated Martina Navratilova. "When I beat Martina in Rome, that was the best moment I ever had," she says. "That gave me a lot of confidence." She was 0-5 against Evert until she beat her 6-1, 7-5 last month on Evert's home court in Boca Raton.

The wins over Navratilova and Evert may well signal a changing order in women's tennis, but for Sabatini they led inexorably back to Graf and the recurring nightmare their alleged rivalry had become. Sabatini was 0-11 against Graf, and though she had extended her to three sets in seven of those matches and, according to Evert, "tested Graf more than any of the top players," she was faced with the daunting prospect of spending the rest of her career in Graf's imposing shadow. Before Sabatini broke through in Boca Raton, a lot of players wondered if she had the temperament to challenge Graf regularly.

"Gaby still has a tendency to go through mood swings on the court," says Dell. "You watch Steffi and she has no mood swings. She wants to kill you on every point." Consequently, Graf has been more consistent. This year she has lost only to Sabatini. On the other hand, Sabatini has been beaten by Larisa Savchenko of the U.S.S.R., Shriver, Mary Joe Fernandez and Navratilova (twice) in 1988. While losing to Martina is no disgrace, Sabatini won only two games against her a day after defeating Graf at Amelia Island.

Sabatini still lacks the temperament to approach tennis as a blood sport, although her two victories over Graf may now give her a taste for the kill. With Graf leading 6-2, 3-2 with a service break in Boca Raton, Sabatini began to tire, just as she always had. But she won 10 of the last 11 games of the match. In the third set at Amelia Island she was even more exhausted, but she rallied to win seven of the last nine games. "A lot of the matches I was leading and didn't win," said Sabatini of the Boca Raton match. "I said it won't happen today. When I was tired, I hit the ball harder. I felt that this was the time."

And not a moment too soon. For the future of women's tennis is most emphatically now.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAWith talent, beauty and a mystique that piques, Sabatini stands to make a fortune. PHOTOCARYN LEVYA rigorous fitness regimen has given Sabatini more power and stamina on the court. PHOTOART SEITZGraf-Sabatini is a formidable pairing in doubles and a compelling rivalry in singles. PHOTOART SEITZAt 14, Sabatini won the 18-and-under crown at the French Open. PHOTOCARYN LEVYWith Dad and Mom so near, Gabriela may continue to keep her distance. TWO PHOTOSRONALD C. MODRAPart of Sabatini's off-court makeup is serving up commercials for the likes of Perrier.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)